Galileo Galilei Essay - Critical Essays

Galilei, Galileo


Galileo Galilei 1564–1642

Italian astronomer, mathematician, physicist, and philosopher.

Galileo is regarded as one of the greatest scientific thinkers of the Renaissance. His questioning of Aristotelian and Ptolemaic concepts of physics and astronomy, his studies of motion, his refinement of the telescope, and his subsequent discoveries about the universe were to have far-reaching, influential effects on the way people think about the earth and the heavens. Galileo's ideas also got him into trouble: condemned by the Inquisition for espousing a heliocentric world system, which violated Catholic Church teachings that the Earth was the center of the universe, he spent the last years of his life under house arrest.

Biographical Information

Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa in 1564 to a cloth merchant/musician and member of the minor nobility. In 1581 he enrolled at the University of Pisa as a medical student, but his interests soon turned to the field of mathematics, and he received a teaching position at the University in 1589. From the beginning, Galileo's strong disagreement with popular Aristotelian theories of motion and gravity led him into conflict with his academic peers, and he was eventually forced to resign as Chair of Mathematics at Pisa. In 1592, however, he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at Padua. On vacation from the University of Padua in 1605 he tutored Cosimo, the Prince of Tuscany. Cosimo was later to become the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Galileo's patron. And it was to the Grand Duke's mother, Christina, that Galileo wrote his fateful Lettera a Madama Cristina de Lorena (written 1615; published 1636; Letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany), in which he unsuccessfully attempted to reconcile the Church and Biblical exegesis with the Copemican heliocentric system. Well before this disastrous event, however, a supernova occurred in 1604; it was visible to the human eye and drew Galileo into a heated debate with those who believed in Aristotle's theory that the heavens were immutable. Galileo's life took a decisive turn in 1608 with the invention of the telescope in Holland. A year later, Galileo made refinements to the telescope which allowed him to view not only the stars in the Milky Way but also four moons around Jupiter, spots on the sun, and the rugged and uneven surface of the earth's

moon. Galileo published these findings in Sidereus nuncius (1610; The Starry Messenger) in which he began to think seriously about the likelihood of a Copernican universe. The Starry Messenger was well-received, but a later, more candid discussion of Copernicanism, published in 1613 as Historia e dimonstrazioni intorno alle macchie solari (Sunspot Letters) was condemned by the Church as an outspoken defense of heliocentrism. In 1625, Galileo began working on a discourse entitled Dialogo dei due massimi sistemi del mondoTolemaico e Copernicano (1632; Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems). This venture initially received Pope Urban VIII's blessing as a measured discussion of the compatibility of Church doctrine and the Copernican system. After it was written, however, the Pontiff criticized the Dialogue for two reasons: first, he felt that he himself had been portrayed as an object of ridicule in the discourse; and second, he was notified of the apparent existence of a document signed by Galileo in 1616 promising never again to advocate or even discuss Copernicanism. Events happened fairly quickly after that: In February of 1632, the Dialogue was published; in October of that same year, Galileo was ordered to come to Rome to answer before the Inquisition. In June of 1633, Galileo was compelled to repudiate the Dialogue on his knees before his accusers. He was sentenced as a heretic and condemned to imprisonment for life—a sentence that was softened to house arrest with the understanding that Galileo would never again publish his writings. When he died in 1642, he was blind but still publishing—although outside Italy. To the end of his life, Galileo insisted that there was no conflict between Copernicanism and his own devotion to the Church.

Major Works

Galileo's major works include The Starry Messenger, which generated much positive excitement when it focused people's eyes for the first time on what was actually happening in the sky. His Sunspot Letters, on the other hand, are notorious. As Stillman Drake points out, Galileo wrote these Letters in Italian rather than in Latin (a scholarly and liturgical language that was universal only to those who were educated); by contrast, the colloquial Letters were accessible to "practically everyone in Italy who could read." Significantly, the arguments contained in them described a Copernican or heliocentric universe rather than the Ptolemaic or world-centered universe advocated by the Church. Galileo's most famous work, the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, is well-known not for its rigid defense of the Copernican against the Ptolemaic system (for it was meant to consider the two impartially); instead, it is infamous because Galileo wrote it after he had apparently been forbidden to write or teach anything at all about the Copernican system. Thus the Dialogue was catalyst for Galileo's appearance and conviction before the Inquisition. Ironically, as Jean Dietz Moss points out, it is the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina where Galileo unequivocally advocates the Copernican system. Yet he does so while trying to prove that heliocentrism and the interpretation of the Bible are not at odds. Thus, it has "become a classic in literature relating to the conflict between science and religion," and "passages [from it] are often quoted for the sheer power of their expression and the acuity of their observations."

Critical Reception

Today, experts on the life and works of Galileo are increasingly coming to believe that he was a victim not of his ideas, but of politics. Several scholars have called into question the very existence of the document of 1616 in which Galileo was supposed to have promised never to teach or write about the Copernican system. Instead, some specialists now argue that the sharptongued and not always diplomatic Galileo became a convenient pawn in a power struggle between members of the Church of Rome as a result of the Counter-Reformation—a time when the Catholic Church was trying to reform itself in response to the Protestant Reformation. As Maurice A. Finocchiaro observes, Galileo's trial occurred "during the so-called Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants…." At that time "Pope Urban VIII, who had earlier been an admirer and supporter of Galileo, was in an especially vulnerable position; thus not only could he not continue to protect Galileo, but he had to use Galileo as a scapegoat to reassert … his authority and power."

Principal Works

De motu [On Motion] (originally untitled treatise) 1589?

Sidereus nuncius [The Starry Messenger; also translated as The Sidereal Messenger; or as Astronomical Announcement] (essay) 1610

Discorso intorno alle cose che stanno su l'acqua [Discourse on Floating Bodies; also translated as Discourse on Bodies in Water] (essay) 1612

Historia e dimonstrazioni intorno alle macchie solari [Sunspot Letters; also translated as Letters on Sunspots] (letters) 1613

Lettera a Madama Cristina de Lorena [Letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany; also translated as Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina; or simply, Letter to Christina] (treatise) written 1615; published 1636

Il saggiatore [The Assayer] (essay) 1623

Dialogo dei due massimi sistemi del mondoTolemaico e Copernicano [Dialogue on the Two Principal World SystemsPtolemaic and Copernican; also translated as Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems; also referred to as Dialogue] (dialogue) 1632

Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze … [Mathematical Discourses and Demonstrations, Touching Two New Sciences … ] (essay) 1638


Sir Robert S. Ball (essay date 1895)

SOURCE: "Galileo," in Great Astronomers, Isbister and Company, Ltd., 1895, pp. 67-95.

[In the following excerpt, Ball gives a nineteenth-century perspective of Galileo's life and career, focusing in particular on letters from his daughter Sister Maria Celeste.]

Among the ranks of the great astronomers it would be difficult to find one whose life presents more interesting features and remarkable vicissitudes than does that of Galileo. We may consider him as the patient investigator and brilliant discoverer. We may consider him in his private relations, especially to his daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, a woman of very remarkable character; and we have also the pathetic...

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Albert Einstein (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: Foreword to Galileo Galilei: "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic & Copernican," by Galileo Galilei, translated by Stillman Drake, with the foreward translated by Sonja Bargmann, University of California Press, 2nd ed., 1967, pp. vii-xix.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1953 and reprinted in 1967, Einstein expresses his admiration for Galileo's creativity and remarks that the theme of "Galileo's work is the passionate fight against any kind of dogma based on authority."]

Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems is a mine of information for anyone interested in the cultural history of the...

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Giorgio de Santillana (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Galileo in the Present," in Homage to Galileo: Papers Presented at the Galileo Quadricentennial, University of Rochester, October 8 and 9, 1964, edited by Morton F. Kaplon, The M.I.T. Press, 1965, pp. 1-25.

[In the following essay, first presented as a paper in 1964 and published in 1965, de Santillana argues that Galileo was the first to combine the study of science with the usefulness of technology, or "technique," in order to find out the "how" of things in nature.]

Galileo has by now moved out of history into myth. He is more than the creator of an era. He has become a hero of civilization, the symbol of a great adventure like Prometheus, or rather like...

(The entire section is 7597 words.)

Stillman Drake (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Effectiveness of Galileo's Work," in Galileo Studies: Personality, Tradition, and Revolution, The University of Michigan Press, 1970, pp. 95-122.

[In the following excerpt, Drake asserts that Galileo was revolutionary for being the first to integrate the heretofore separate disciplines of mathematics, physics, and astronomy in scientific thought.]

Until the present century it was customary to call Galileo the founder of modern physical science. Ancient science was thought of as having ended with the decline of Greek civilization, and no real contribution to scientific thought was known to have been made during the long ensuing period to the late...

(The entire section is 7100 words.)

Pope John Paul II (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Epilogue: 'The Greatness of Galileo Is Known to All,'" in Galileo Galilei: Toward a Resolution of 350 Years of Debate—1633-1983, edited by Paul Cardinal Poupard, with the "Epilogue" translated by Ian Campbell from a speech given in 1979, Duquesne University Press, 1987, pp. 195-200.

[In the following essay, first presented as a speech in 1979 and reprinted in 1987, Pope John Paul II undertakes to reconcile the views of the Catholic Church with those of Galileo, arguing that Galileo was not in fact in opposition to the Church.]

During the centenary commemoration of the birth of Albert Einstein,1 celebrated by the Pontifical Academy of the...

(The entire section is 2202 words.)

Jean Dietz Moss (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Galileo's Letter to Christina: Some Rhetorical Considerations," in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 547-76.

[In the following essay, Moss argues that Galileo's letter to his patron's mother, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, in which he defends his position on Copernicus would have been more likely to save him had it stayed within his own area of expertise—mathematics—rather than strayed into theology, the specialty of his accusers.]

The year 1982 marked the 350th anniversary of the publication of Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, a work that was to have a tragic impact on the astronomer's life,...

(The entire section is 12882 words.)

Richard S. Westfall (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Science and Patronage: Galileo and the Telescope," in Isis, Vol. 76, March, 1985, pp. 11-30.

[In the following essay, Westfall argues that the heavy reliance upon and competition for patronage in the seventeenth century might have affected the truthfulness of some of the scientific conclusions and discoveries made by scientists of that period, including Galileo.]

Sometime late in 1610, probably near 11 December, Galileo received a letter from his disciple Benedetto Castelli:

If the position of Copernicus, that Venus revolves around the sun, is true (as I believe), [Castelli wrote], it is clear that it would necessarily...

(The entire section is 12001 words.)

Charles E. Hummel (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Galileo: Physics and Astronomy," in The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts between Science and the Bible, Intervarsity Press, 1986, pp. 81-102.

[In the following excerpt, Hummel outlines Galileo's early years, and describes the steps in Galileo's own particular scientific method.]

Renaissance Italy was a collection of states with a wide variety of governmental structures. In one the people might hold power; another would have a hereditary ruler. Such diversity fostered the idea that there could be more than one way to govern. Differences of opinion on economic and social issues flourished. In that relatively open society, ready in many areas to consider...

(The entire section is 7983 words.)

William R. Shea (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Galileo and the Church," in God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, edited by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, University of California Press, 1986, pp. 114-35.

[In the following essay, Shea details the theological, political, and scientific temper of the era and country in which Galileo lived, and argues that Galileo was more a victim of politics than of inflexible beliefs.]

The condemnation of Galileo (1564-1642) is perhaps the most dramatic incident in the long and varied history of the relations between science and religious faith. Honest seekers after truth have been shocked by the attempt to suppress...

(The entire section is 9527 words.)

Richard S. Westfall (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Bellarmino, Galileo, and the Clash of Two World Views," in Essays on the Trial of Galileo, Vatican Observatory Publications, 1989, pp. 1-30.

[In the following essay, Westfall summarizes the backgrounds of Galileo and his adversary, Cardinal Bellarmino (also known as Bellarmine), and argues that their conflict regarding Galileo's officially heretical belief in a Copernican or heliocentric universe began as early as 1610 with the publication of Sidereus nuncius (The Starry Messenger).]

And because it has also come to the attention of the aforementioned Sacred Congregation [the final paragraph of a decree of 5 March 1616 by the Congregation of...

(The entire section is 12613 words.)

Maurice A. Finocchiaro (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History, edited and translated by Maurice A. Finocchiaro, University of California Press, 1989, pp. 1-46.

[In the following excerpt, Finocchiaro describes Galileo 's personality as it clashed with the tenor of the times, and explains Copernicus 's heliocentric theory as well as its limitations, showing how, thanks to his improvements on the recently invented telescope, Galileo was able to eliminate most of those limitations.]

Nonintellectual Factors

Beginning with personal or psychological factors, it is easy to see that Galileo had a penchant for controversy, was a master of wit and...

(The entire section is 8688 words.)

Eileen Reeves (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Daniel 5 and the Assayer: Galileo Reads the Handwriting on the Wall," in The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 1-27.

[In the following essay, Reeves portrays Galileo's Assayer as a witty and rigorous linguistic attack against scientific ignorance and vanity.]


In that great catalog of wit and invective which Galileo Galilei published in 1623 as the Assayer, the rather unlikely issue of Babylonian cookery is singled out as particularly deserving of ridicule. The matter arose in the course of the debate over the comets of 1618—the ostensible subject of the...

(The entire section is 11387 words.)

Annibale Fantoli (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "The Storm Breaks Loose: The Trial and Condemnation of Galileo," in Galileo: For Copernicanism and for the Church, translated by George V. Coyne, S. J., Vatican Observatory Publications, 1994, pp. 369-462.

[In the following excerpt, Fantoli provides transcripts of Galileo's questioning by the Inquisition and his testimony concerning the publication of his Dialogue.]

6. The Trial of 1633 and Galileo's Defense

Finally the two-month long uncertainty came to an end. [Francesco Niccolini, Ambassador of the grand Duke of Tuscany to Rome's Holy See and spokesperson on behalf of Galileo,] was summoned by Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who...

(The entire section is 3593 words.)

Further Reading


Broderick, James. Galileo: The Man, His Work, His Misfortunes. New York: Harper and Row, 1964, 152 p.

Traces the life of Galileo as a man of "genius" forced to struggle against the outmoded ideas of Aristotle and of Ptolemy, as well as with the implacability of the Inquisition.

Drake, Stillman. Galileo at Work: His Scientific Biography. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978, 536 p.

Looks at Galileo's life from the point of view of his publications, with a particular focus on his lesser known writings.


(The entire section is 834 words.)